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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Plastic Bags

California wants you to pay for your plastic bags. (FYI: That’s not an infringement on your constitutional rights.)
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(Photo: padu_foto/Shutterstock)

(Photo: padu_foto/Shutterstock)

The California legislature recently passed a bill that bans disposable plastic bags. If the governor signs the bill, stores will be able to sell reusable plastic bags for a minimum of 10 cents each, but they won’t be able to hand disposables out for free. Although the ban would be a clear win for the environment—and similar laws are already on the books in many cities—some consumers are shocked and angry. One shopper called the bill “a bunch of baloney.” A lobbyist for the grocery chain Safeway once called a similar bill in Maryland “un-American.”

We take for granted certain complimentary products (napkins, plastic forks, ketchup, etc.), but freebie bags weren’t always expected. “Thou shalt distribute complimentary plastic bags” was not one of the Ten Commandments, nor did Thomas Jefferson proclaim our entitlement to life, liberty, and plastic bags to King George III. Franklin Roosevelt did not lead us into World War II to guarantee our freedom to carry disposable baggies.

Early American shoppers brought their own packaging for even the messiest purchases, such as those from the butcher’s shop. But in the early 1800s, the falling cost of paper enabled merchants to wrap up their wares and tie them with string. Even then, shoppers still had to bring their own bags or awkwardly carry armfuls of stringed baubles home from the market.

The average American uses 500 plastic bags per year, and the recycling rate for them is abysmal.

The 1852 invention of the paper bag wasn’t much help. The bags were little more than two sheets of brown paper fastened together at the edges. That was great for transporting a new daguerreotype of your sweetheart Millie, but you still had to BYO-bag for purchases that were more three-dimensional. In the early 1870s, Margaret Knight invented a machine that could efficiently crank out flat-bottomed paper bags, which were both cheap and useful. At that time, many retailers began to include bags in the cost of their goods.

Even with Knight’s invention, though, shoppers could really only carry two or three bags at a time. Retailers didn’t like that, so Walter Deubner, a Minnesota grocer, developed the first handled and reinforced shopping bag in 1912. This bag could hold up to 75 pounds and was too expensive to just give away. So shoppers had to pay a few cents for the convenience. (I was unable to find contemporary records of shoppers calling such charges “a bunch of baloney.”) Improvements in manufacturing made these bags free to consumers somewhere around 1950.

The free handled paper bag dominated the market for only a brief period before the plastic bag came onto the scene in the late 1950s. Then the oil company Mobil brought the familiar petroleum-based plastic bag to market in the 1970s. These “T-shirt” bags (so named for their shape) cost less than half as much as a paper bag, and the economics proved irresistible. By the early 1980s, the plastic bag had become grocers’ packaging of choice.

From the very beginning, however, the plastic bag has been no stranger to controversy. Consumers hated the bag’s wobbliness at first and the fact that it wouldn’t stand up on its own. In 1959, reports of dozens of children suffocating on the bags led to calls for a ban, but manufacturers responded with a nationwide safety campaign. The plastic bag was saved.

But soon enough we became aware of another reason to ban the bag: it’s an environmental disaster. According to fellow OnEarth columnist Susan Freinkel’s 2011 book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, one must re-use a plastic bag at least four times to justify the fossil fuels used to create and ship it.

The more obvious problem is that plastic bags are everywhere, and since these bags take hundreds of years to biodegrade, they will be everywhere for a while. In 2010, the Guinness Book of World Records called the plastic bag the most ubiquitous consumer product in the world. The average American uses 500 plastic bags per year, and the recycling rate for them is abysmal—only 12 percent, compared to nearly 50 percent for paper bags. And when these bags end up in the wrong recycling stream, they slow down the processing of other materials. An official at one recycling center told Rolling Stone in 2011 that more than 25 percent of the company’s labor costs were spent removing plastic bags from its machines. The infamous Great Pacific Trash Vortex—one of five swirling, Texas-size flotillas of garbage in the ocean—contains an unknowably huge amount of broken up plastic bags.

For these reasons, many governments have prohibited the free distribution of disposable bags. Hawaii has a plastic bag ban, as do Seattle and Austin. Even China, hardly known for its aggressive environmental restrictions, has banned free plastic bags.

Free stuff can be great, but the truth is that plastic bags aren’t really free. Carrying a bag to the store is a small price to pay for cleaner air and water. Your great-grandmother did it. Somehow, I think you’ll find a way as well.

This post originally appeared on OnEarth as “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Plastic Bags” and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.